Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Memory of Running (Ron McLarty)

I'm in a state of shock: not only did the Warehouse have a range of suitable books, books that you just wouldn't find in your typical suburban bookshop, but they were all $5 each! I'm talking books like ClaireTomalin's Jane Austen: A Life and Samuel Pepys: An Unequalled Self. Books like Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal and Matt Ruff's Set the House in Order. Or there is the Penguin History of the 20th Century. Of course, I don't have the sort of family for whom any of these books would suffice as stocking filler, but since I like such things, I bought them all, and more.

I mentioned that I was reading Nigel Cox's Responsibility: it turned out to be so good that before I had even finished, I rushed off to buy a copy for a colleague who left us for the north yesterday. Today, I became so enchanted with my current book, Sarah Hall's Electric Michelangelo, that I rushed off to buy a copy for another colleague as a Christmas present. These are brave moves given that the last person for whom I bought a book regarded it as such an impertinance that I do so that she has not spoken to me since. People are strange. We need more like Smithy Ide, the "hero" of the Memory of Running.

He is 43 and basically stopped functioning 20 years ago when his sister went missing. He has amassed an enormous weight (280 pounds - which gives him a BMI of 39 on a scale where 30 is obese) and works in quality control, ensuring that the arms of toy soldiers have been put on in the correct place - a far cry from the Vietnam war hero he was. As a young man, he would ride is Raleigh bicycle and run a lot, with plenty of warnings from his sister Bethany that if he ever stopped running, he'd become fat and worthless - pretty much where he has ended up. He is like his childhood pet, Malzone, who had to be fixed to prevent him from chasing after girl dogs - the vet says "He'll have a
memory of running or something, and after a while he'll forget about the girl dogs and be fat and happy" except that Ide is not happy. Bethany's disappearance seems to have had the same effect on him as on Malzone: apart from three times in Vietnam where he paid for sex (before the respective women fled in horror, according to him) he has had nothing to do with women at all. The one woman he did ask out "laughed so hard her coffee came out her nose".

The novel starts with triple bad news for Ide: his father and mother are in a car accident and die in seperate hospitals, then he gets a letter to say that his long-missing sister, Bethany, has finally turned up: in a Californian morgue. He's in a bit of a daze, finds himself at his parents' house, where he notices his old Raleigh:
... I put up the kickstand with my heel and walked with the bike between my legs, to the end of the driveway. It must have been around eight, because I remember a full moon.
Now, I don't understand this, except I knew there was a Sunoco station at the bottom of our street, and it probably had an air pump, but, as I said, this is a gray area because all of a sudden I gave the Raleigh a few steps, sat ridiculously on the seat, and began to coast on the flat tyre rims of my bike, down our little hill.
And thus, without ever thinking about it, started his odyssey: he bikes from East Coast Providence New Jersey to Venice Beach, California.

Bethany is a tragic figure: she is apparently very beautiful, vivacious smart but at the same time, broken: she has a mental illness which causes her variously to take "poses" she can maintain for days, to disfigure herself quite hideously and to run away. This is another way in which Smith has a memory of running. There is nothing dodgy about his love for his sister, but it is clear he does, no matter how painful that might be at times:
Another thing about love I remember. It's good and bad, but sometimes when you love somebody so much, you just can't forget how they are when they're hurt. When Bethany was hurt, when she cried and hit herself, it was kind of, I guess complete. All of her hurt. ... But I never saw things so complete as Bethany's sadness.
And then:
You have to learn to look at someone you truly adore through eyes that really aren't your own. It's as if a person has to become another person altogether to be able to take a hard look. Good people protect the people they love, even if that means pretending that everything is okay. When the posing and the disappearing became a way of life for Bethany, we'd take on this almost casual approach in our searches.
Its a pretty straight-forward sort of philosophy but not a bad way of defining both good people and love.

Our story has four dimensions to it: the physical journey Smithy takes across the USA to reclaim the body of his sister, in which he comes across essentially good people; it was quite heartening - although he does manage to get knocked down by a truck, beaten up by a policeman and damn near killed by the son of his army buddy. There is the almost constant presence of his sister - she is either in his memory or a physical presence for him. There are his memories of his relationship with his parents and their shared love for baseball. And finally, there is Norma: she was Bethany's childhood friend who from the age of six loved Smithy - he was ten at that stage, so obviously didn't want some kid screaming out her love for him. But as he cycles his way across America, there is a growing connection between them.

I reckon this is a Pulitzer-worthy novel (the criteria is basically that it tell an American story) and yet McLarty had enormous trouble getting it published. I can't remember how Stephen King came to read the manuscript, but it was only when he did and told a publisher to publish it that this marvellous book saw the light of day.


Blogger harvestbird said...

I take the attitude that those of us with more esoteric tastes have an obligation to stuff our own stocking (ignoring just how dubious that sounds), and that, when that with which we might undertake the stuffing is on sale for $5, well, it's not an obligation; it's an imperative.

7:40 PM  
Blogger piksea said...

What a great review! It looks like I'm adding another to my TBR pile. I remember the author being interviewed here in the US in my local paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. I think he's local.

The list of $5 books sound like the ultimate in stocking stuffers. I'm drooling at the thought.

3:56 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

I think I ended up with about 10 of those books: when I came across Hari Kunzru's Transmission for $2.50 a pop, I very nearly bought a dozen, which I could then have imposed upon my book club as our next selection.

10:19 PM  

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